TO POSSESS IS TO LOSE
William Blake wrote a poem in which he advised that to bend to oneself a joy is to destroy the winged life but that to kiss the joy as it flies is to live in eternity’s sunrise. That is, to possess a joy is to kill it but that to enjoy it in passing is to have the joy forever. Keats wrote an ode to a Grecian urn on which were sculpted lovers who were near embrace but who never were to consummate their love. Keats saw in their unrequited passion the avoidance of the grief of love’s sad satiety. “She cannot fade, though thou has not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair.”
One never sees something that he finds attractive that he does not contemplate having it to the exclusion of everyone else. A flower in a field is cut and taken home to a vase. An item from a store shelf in hand helps one to live an hour and to keep boredom out of doors for the moment. A fair one is wooed ceaselessly with sighs and vows until she consents to be bound by contract and to be thereafter within the confines of custom. Whereupon the magic and mystery that so enlivened the suitor fades and the possession’s charm diminishes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, along with everyone who has examined life, experienced the atrophy of joy through possession and also wrote a poem on the illusion of joy’s permanency and on joy’s quickened ephemerality — when one has it. In the poem, entitled “Each and All,” Emerson makes the point that “Nothing is fair or good alone.” All of man’s doings and all of the doings of all other life are needed by each to make all fair and good. “The sexton, tolling his bell at noon / Deems not that great Napoleon / Stops his horse, and lists with delight, / Whilst his files sweep round yon Alpine height; / Nor knowest thou what argument / Thy life to thy neighbor’s creed has lent.”
He hears a bird whose song is from heaven sent and he brings the bird home there to have and to hear its song . The bird sings but it no longer cheers him. “For I did not bring home the river and the sky, — / He sang to my ear, — they sang to my eye.” He takes home sea shells from the shore, sea-borne treasures that escaped the bellowing of the savage sea, only to find there that “… the poor, unsightly, noisome things / Had left their beauty on the shore. / With the sun and the sand and the wild uproar.”
A lover watches a graceful maid in a romantic setting unaware that much of her attraction is owing to the setting. “At last she came to his hermitage, / Like the bird from the woodlands to the cage; — / The gay enchantment was undone, / A gentle wife, but fairy none.”
Disillusioned, Emerson seeks truth; for “Beauty is unripe childhood’s cheat.” Thus, he decides to leave behind the games of youth. Whereupon beneath his feet, “The ground pine curled its pretty wreath, / Running over the club moss burs; / I inhaled the violet’s breath; / Around me stood the oaks and firs; / Pine cones and acorns lay on the ground; / Over me soared the eternal sky, / Full of light and of deity; / Again I say, again I heard, / The rolling river, the morning bird; — / Beauty through my senses stole; / I yielded myself to the perfect whole.”
Blake, Keats and Emerson not only learned that getting and spending and buying and possessing is an addiction but that it is an addiction that grows by what it feeds on. There is no end to yearning to possess something because the very possession of it depreciate it and causes the yearning to seek another object , which obtained, then to seek another, so long as pocketbook and credit will support the habit. This human failing is known and studied and used by calculating merchants and their wily advertisers, who are aware that only philosophers and eccentrics discern the disposition and have the discipline to curb it.
In a society that considers private property as sacred and consumption as a religion, poets and their concepts are strange, if not subversive. When will one ever hear an ad or a sermon or a political speech in which there is the message that one should bridle one’s wants and save one’s wages rather than to buy to the point of surfeit or bankruptcy or both? The church and state and schools should teach that frugality is a virtue and that consumption is deception. But this state and civilization will be artifacts dug up by archeologists before it teaches and sanctions frugality.
Emerson’s lines “The gay enchantment was undone, / A gentle wife, but fairy none” should be on every marriage counselor’s wall. It should be there so that estranged couples could read and understand that every gay enchantment begins to fade as soon as the object of passion is possessed. Some would then understand that disenchantment is natural and to some degree an inevitable end of her coming to his hermitage or his coming to hers.
Blake, Keats and Emerson found truth in nature. Not in its parts but in the whole. Not in having but in kissing on the fly. Unspoiled nature to them was of ultimate value to engender spiritual inspiration. They would find this society’s prodigality in degrading God’s creation to create its own creation unthinkable, particularly in view of the tawdriness of what it has created at the expense of nature’s ruin. They would have considered the loss incalculable to the human spirit in its quest for truth and peace.
Youth should be taught what the poets knew, not only by teachers, but by those who control the media and who without surcease saturate and seduce the minds of the young with transient enticements. Youth will learn what the poets knew, but for some it will be knowledge late coming: perhaps, too late.